9 theoretical physicists win huge new cash prize

From Nature magazine

A billionaire internet tycoon has awarded a record $27 million to nine physicists for their work on fundamental theory. Yuri Milner, who made his fortune investing in social media companies, announced the new Fundamental Physics Prize this morning. Laureates work on difficult problems ranging from the early inflation of the Universe to string theory (see box).

At $3 million per person, the new prize dwarfs the Nobel Prize, which this year is valued at around SEK 8 million ($1.2 million). It also tops other well-known prizes such as the Kavli Prize and the Shaw Prize, which are valued at $1 million each.

The news of the award came as a shock, even to the winners. “It was a complete surprise,” says Edward Witten, a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who won an award for his work on string theory.

At 50, Milner is an overnight sensation in California’s Silicon Valley. Over the past three years, he has invested heavily in social media companies including Twitter, Facebook and Spotify. Today, his various investment funds are worth around $12 billion and his private value is pegged at $1 billion.

He created the prize out of love for theoretical physics, which he studied at Moscow State University and the Russian Academy of Sciences in the 1980s and early 1990s. The first winners were chosen by Milner himself. Unlike other prizes, such as the Nobel Prize, the new prize can be awarded to theorists whose ideas have not yet been supported by data. The aim is to reward ground-breaking concepts that advance theoretical thinking.

“The intent was to say that science is as important as stock ratings on Wall Street,” Milner said. Nature. The new money comes with no strings attached, but he hopes the prize will increase public recognition of theoretical physics and that winners will give public lectures that will become as popular as Richard Feynman’s famous lectures on physics.

The new prices have not been warmly received by all in the theoretical community. Some of the winning theories, such as string theory, are fundamentally unverifiable, says Peter Woit, a mathematician at Columbia University in New York who is a well-known critic of speculative ideas. And others, like supersymmetry and extra dimensions, are being put to the test following new measurements at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a massive particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland (see ‘Theorists feast on Higgs data‘). “A bunch of people are getting $3 million for doing something that can’t be tested or just turned out to be wrong,” he says.

Plus, he says, the winners come from a few elite institutions (four of the nine are from the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton). The net effect may be to strengthen the old guard, rather than encourage new thinking, he warns.

In response, Milner says he is not yet convinced that the LHC has disproved ideas such as supersymmetry. “I think the LHC has not shown its full potential; I think we should talk about it in the next few years,” he says.

As for the composition of the panel, he admits that “the nine names I would have chosen would not constitute a perfect set”. The future winners will be chosen by the winners of the previous years. As the award committee expands, Milner believes any imbalances in the judging panel will correct themselves. Each year, the winners will also select three young researchers who will receive a “New Horizons” prize of $100,000 and, if applicable, a winner of an ad hoc prize.

So far, the winners contacted by Nature were still in shock. Andrei Linde, a cosmologist at Stanford University in California, only discovered his good fortune late last week. How will he spend his money? “It’s a much more complicated problem than the physics problems I’m trying to solve,” he says.

The next prizes will be awarded in the first quarter of 2013.

Theoretical millionaires
Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation has selected nine researchers who will each receive $3 million. Here is the description of the winning work by the foundation:

Nima Arkani-Hamed — For original approaches to outstanding problems in particle physics, including the proposal of extra large dimensions, new theories for the Higgs boson, new realizations of supersymmetry, theories for dark matter and the exploration of new mathematical structures in gauge theory scattering amplitudes.

Alan Guth — For the invention of inflationary cosmology, and for his contributions to the theory of the generation of cosmological density fluctuations resulting from quantum fluctuations in the early universe, and for his ongoing work on the problem of defining probabilities in eternally inflated space-times.

Alexei Kitayev — For the theoretical idea of ​​implementing robust quantum memories and fault-tolerant quantum computation using topological quantum phases with unpaired anyons and Majorana modes.

Maxim Konstevich — For many contributions which have taken the fruitful interaction between modern theoretical physics and mathematics to new heights, including the development of homological mirror symmetry and the study of wall crossing phenomena.

Andrei Linde — For the development of inflationary cosmology, including the theory of the new inflation, eternal chaotic inflation and the theory of the inflationary multiverse, and for contributing to the development of vacuum stabilization mechanisms in string theory.

Juan Maldacena — For the gauge/gravity duality, linking gravitational physics in a space-time and quantum field theory at the boundary of space-time. This correspondence demonstrates that black holes and quantum mechanics are compatible, resolving the black hole information paradox. It also provides a useful tool for studying tightly coupled quantum systems, giving insight into a range of problems from high-temperature nuclear matter to high-temperature superconductors.

Nathan Seiberg — For his major contributions to our understanding of quantum field theory and string theory. His exact analysis of supersymmetric quantum field theories has led to new insights into their dynamics, with fundamental applications in physics and mathematics.

Ashoke Sen – For discovering striking evidence of strong-weak duality in some supersymmetric string theories and gauge theories, paving the way for the realization that all string theories are different limits of the same underlying theory.

Edward Witten — For contributions to physics covering topics such as new applications of topology to physics, non-perturbative duality symmetries, models of particle physics derived from string theory, dark matter detection and twistor-string approach to particle scattering amplitudes, as well as numerous applications of quantum field theory to mathematics.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The item was first post July 31, 2012.

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